The single strongest feeling I can recall from my adolescence and childhood is the yearning to be older. I experienced life before the age of majority as a prolonged period of disempowerment. It seemed like most of the authorities only created encumbrances for me, sometimes petty and sometimes large and always basically stupid. My goal was to get through all the things that adults made me do as quickly as possible. I skipped a grade in primary school (after petitioning my inflexible school administration for three years). I graduated from high school one year early. I learned to jump through whatever hoop I was presented with, even as I never quite became convinced that the hoops were of any importance. The second strongest feeling I can recall from that time is rage.
Artist Molly Crabapple has a moving and insightful new essay about the turmoil of adolescence, and how it is often made worse by the structures imposed on young people by adults. The question of alienated kids has some currency right now — it's easier, after a tragedy like that which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary, to blame the weird kid than to do something that would actually save lives, like outlawing handguns and assault rifles — and she writes about how the policing of vulnerable adolescents' behavior can just engender more alienation.
In December, a New Jersey schoolboy was arrested for drawing in class.
In the post-Sandy Hook rage to blame anything (guns, video games, internet addicted youth) the easiest thing to blame is always the kid who fails at the blankly inoffensive ideals of childhood. This sixteen year old drew a glove shooting flames. The police searched his house. They found the sort of gutted machines that hint at a proclivity for engineering. He was arrested on December 18, and was still in juvenile hall when papers ran the story on the 28th.
A few weeks later, 17-year old Courtni Webb was thrown out of school in California. A teacher searched her bag, and found a poem she had written for herself, that showed too much empathy for Adam Lanza. When you're underage, your property isn't private. Neither are your thoughts.
Crabapple writes about being thrown out of school at 12 "for, among other crimes, drawing headless cheerleaders during English. It was the cherry atop a year of being hauled before earnest adults concerned about my future. I was an at-risk girl. No one would ever say at risk for what."
My dad's girlfriend nicknamed me "little black smudge." I was arrogant, and scowly, and awful. I'd been an antisocial child. Many a Thanksgiving with the Puerto Rican half of my family began with them hauling me out of some book-lined hiding spot. I read when I walked to avoid making eye contact. When I messed up a drawing (and I messed up most) I'd weep till I couldn't breathe. Concerned guidance counselors called home about my poetry. Conversation made me choke.
I was never identified as a "problem" or an "at-risk" child, but in another time, in another educational culture, in another family or class or race or religion, I probably could have been so labeled. I was a deeply unhappy kid, and scared. On the rare occasions I could not avoid an interaction with my peers outside the classroom, more than once I ended up in a physical fight with one or another of my bullies. Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn't. I sprained my wrist three times the year I turned 11; there was a girl in my year who liked to trip or tackle me whenever a teacher wasn't looking. I hated that I had to spend eight hours a day in a school where, even as my behavior and attention and speech were subject to such minute and exhausting scrutiny, even as I wasn't permitted to decide for myself when I went to the bathroom or at what pace I learned or when or what or in which handwriting I wrote in my notebooks, this insipid regime which demanded so much of my self couldn't even keep me safe.
My refuge was books. As soon as the bell rang for lunch, I would take the novel I had in my backpack, place it in front of my face, and walk to the end of my classroom block, up the 14 concrete steps, past the chainlink fence around the netball court, and up the three steps to the library door. Then I would put down the book, greet the librarian — the only teacher who seemed to like me — pick up the book, sit down, and continue reading until the bell rang. My goal was to avoid any situation where I and my bullies might come into unsupervised contact; the library was my safe space. I read, and read, and read. My parents used to check my room for books each night. As I got older, I got better at hiding them — between the mattress and box spring always worked — and in middle and high school after I was sent to bed I would read until I finally fell asleep, light still burning, at one or two in the morning.
"Most American adults," writes Crabapple, will never experience an environment where their lives are subject to such petty tyranny as children and adolescents endure every day, "unless they are in a hospital, old age home, institution or prison." Adults forget what it's like to be a child; you grow up and you finally close that book. The immediacy of the experience recedes, probably because it's painful to remember that kind of abjection. But we would do well to have a little empathy for the people we used to be. Even — perhaps especially — when they doodle or write poetry.
I think things are probably worse for young people today than they were even ten years ago, when I graduated from high school. I read about schools where kids aren't allowed to go to the bathroom between classes — what more fundamental indignity is there than not being allowed to pee or change your goddamn tampon when you need to? Schools where having a legal, over-the-counter drug like Motrin or Asprin in your bag is an automatic detention or even a suspension. The surveillance you're subjected to as a young adult pervades everything from life's most inconsequential choices to its biggest. Adolescents, especially girls, are not afforded much medical privacy or bodily autonomy. Thirty-seven U.S. states require women under 18 either notify or obtain the consent of their parents before an abortion. The consequences of such laws can be horrifying. In 2011, two senators introduced a bill that would have criminalized any health care provider from a non-notification state who performed an abortion on a young woman from a state with such laws. The House version of the bill racked up 158 co-sponsors. In the U.K., a program that allowed teenage girls to receive information about birth control and to fill prescriptions discreetly in schools was attacked by parents who felt it violated their rights. The state of Tennessee is trying to force teachers to spy on their students and report the ones who may be gay to their parents. What other group, besides young people, is subject to this kind of constant, infantilizing surveillance and control?
I never drew headless cheerleaders in my notebooks — or gloves with flames — but I can identify with the state of mind of the kids who did, and do. It does, to a certain extent, "get better"; for me, actual life is better than college, college was better than high school, high school was much better than middle school, and middle school, thank God, was better than primary school. But the fact that things do eventually improve for most people is no reason to make adolescence any harder than it has to be.